Top 5 Questions your Painting Contract Should Answer

This is really pedestrian level material, but everyone’s a painter now so why not? Besides, I admire those who stand athwart the degradation of language; I gladly count myself among them.

Especially when it comes to holding bandito painting contractors to account for the drubbing they’ve caused the reputation of my time-honored craft, not to mention the downright abuse of the written language. Without these fly-by-night fools I might have nothing to write about!

1. What is being painted?

The first, most important contract item, it’s not so simple as it sounds. For example: House exterior, detached garage, fence (sides facing house and/or street only); is more clear than: “exterior”.

How about this example: “Lacquer kitchen cabinets” Sounds ok, right? What about the interior of the cabinets?

How about closets in bedrooms, pantry or linen closets?

“Paint Bedroom” leaves a lot unsaid: walls, ceilings, trim, closet, what exactly is included?

2. How many coats & colors?

“Paint to cover” means 1 coat. Prime/2 coats means whatever the painter wants it to mean; may be primer plus 1 coat, maybe 2 topcoats but the language is unclear.

Paint &backroll means 1 coat – although I know painters who swear that once you backroll the paint, it somehow becomes 2 coats…they are truly remarkable and someday we may be that good.

How many colors? Paint bedroom: walls, ceilings, trim – 1 color. That means the whole bedroom goes 1 color. Paint exterior: house & garage; 2 colors (1 body, 1 trim) is a good start, but the word “Trim” should be unpacked a little bit.

3. Prep: what level of prep is included?

This should be very specific, it’s going to make a difference in how the project looks right when its finished, but how long it looks good, and ultimately, how long it lasts.

Surface prep is also a convenient step to short – to make the project cost less, and look comparatively attractive next to other bids.

The bandito painters will use very fuzzy verbiage like “prep” and “scrape”. What you’re looking for is descriptive terms such as: “remove buckled caulk seams” or “scrape loose paint, feather sand & fill”

4. What material is included? And how much?

Benjamin Moore is not a material, it is a paint manufacturer that makes dozens of different materials in many price ranges.

Ditto Sherwin Williams.

“Contractor grade” means cheap paint, the cheapest paint that can still be called paint.

And if it’s in quotes, like this: “paint”, then you have a bandito for a painter and you will be painting again within 20 minutes of completion because the paint will not even fall off, it will simply assimilate into the surrounding matter and be gone.

Gallons: this math is important because it determines if your painter is applying the right amount of paint.

The right amount of paint is necessary for the job to last beyond the limited manufacturer warranty, and hopefully beyond the contractor warranty.

Stretching paint (by applying too thin, or watering it down) is a bandito move.

5. Application method:

this is important. Each tool, from a chip brush to a 2-gun sprayer has an ideal use.

Your painting contract should have language such as: apply 2 coats Sherwin Williams Emerald satin by spray & back-brush method, applying 18 gallons total to the body.

3 gallons SW Emerald satin by brush & roller to trim.

This is just what needs to be in the contract. There’s much more than can be, for greater specificity. A good painting contractor wants a detailed contract to protect him from having to do work that is outside the contract, by inference or implication or osmosis, or whatever; but he also wants to protect his customer from being preyed on by bandito painters who promise greatness for a cheap price but whose contracts are loose enough to allow any interpretation.

Why are Some Painting Bids Half the Cost of Others?

This question comes up all the time, the ensuing conversation has become second nature to me it happens so often. What’s the answer to that question?

The answer is simple: price differences come from 2 sources: the company structure, and the quality assumed in the proposal. Since the quality assumed within the proposal is unknown (at least until the work is done), I’ll focus on the differences in how companies are structured.

Companies that do residential painting projects are structured in 3 ways:

1) Traditional Employee Company
2) Subcontractor Brokerage
3) Moonlighters, neighborhood guys, or guys from Craigslist.

A brief description of each:

1) A traditional employee-based company hires employees, pays hourly wages, deducts state and federal payroll taxes, deducts and matches social security and Medicare taxes, pays unemployment insurance premiums on wages, and sends the employee a W2 at the end of the year.

2) A subcontractor brokerage is a more recent business model, one that has an owner who handles sales and management, but the production labor is performed by subcontractors, and so the balance of the labor cost is not subject to wage burdens such as those of a traditional employee-model. At the end of the year the worker receives a 1099 from the company showing how much income he/she made, which was not taxed and for which the worker will have to pay tax. A larger subcontractor brokerage may have employees in administration, paid sales staff, maybe field management too.

3) Moonlighters, guys from the neighborhood or from Craigslist. Largely self explanatory, these operators are completely under the table.

There’s nothing wrong with any of them, they’re just different. Like buying a car, there are many ways to do it, none right or wrong, per se, just different options for different consumers.

Pros and cons; from the price/cost vs. risk/liability standpoint:

1. The employee company’s bid is typically the more expensive because the bid is a multiple of estimated man hours X hourly billing rate: (100 hours X $50/hr) in this example the labor estimate would be $5000, add approximately 20% for materials = $6000 bid price.

This is a traditional structure, above board, playing by the rules- so to speak. Companies structured in this way pay taxes, unemployment insurance, workman’s comp & liability insurance on all the wages of all the employees, including the painters. These costs are called labor burden, because they’re an additional burden on top of labor costs.

This is the safest way to go from a risk/liability standpoint. Companies obeying labor laws are also more inclined to perform background screening on staff, and are more likely to have a training program. In this arrangement, if there is damage to property or injury to workers, the liability is born by the company and it’s insurance carriers.

Moreover, companies like this tend to be more stable, long-term companies so the likelihood of them being around to correct a problem, stand behind the work, or just be there to do the project next time around are significantly better.

2. The subcontractor brokerage’s bid is factored differently; using a % for labor which equates to roughly 30%, and a % for materials, the remainder is overhead and profit. The main difference is the labor % is fixed – and without labor burden. In this company structure it is the subcontractor’s responsibility to pay labor burden costs on the painters’ wages, or not.

This type of company is relatively new, and has arisen in response to the rising costs of employment, employment law, litigation and insurance. This type of company assumes no responsibility or risk for labor burden (aside from office and admin), and if the subcontractor doesn’t pay for work comp, liability, unemployment, or matching contributions to social security or Medicare, it’s not the company’s problem.

If there’s damage or injury, it is the responsibility of the sub-contractor to take care of. If he’s current on his insurance premiums no problem, if not big problem. The wage burdens as they relate to playing by the rules really only play to your sense of fair-play. Unemployment insurance, social security and Medicare are programs designed to protect and provide, not paying into them avoids cost, but also responsibility.

Additionally, there’s a real issue with regard to the question of whether a worker in one of these arrangements is truly a subcontractor, or is really an employee. There is a test, a series of questions really, that determines the answer – only if the test is used, of course.

3. The moonlighter, Craigslist guys or guys from the neighborhood. This is what is known as fly-by-night, station-wagon bandits, or student painters. They have no insurance, pay no taxes or other wage burdens. This is under the table work, traditionally the type of labor one would engage to rake the yard, shovel snow or haul junk out. This should be avoided for any kind of trade or craftsmanship work.

That’s it in a nutshell. I’m fond of drawing analogies to other industries, purchases or common experiences to illustrate, and in this case it does lend itself well to the purchase of a car. You feel most protected buying from a dealership, you’re comfortable that purchasing from the dealer brings comfort and confidence that they will stand behind the car, service it now and 5 years from now.
You’re less confident buying the car from a 2nd hand dealer or a relative, even less confident buying from a classified ad, or off Craigslist. And you may be ok with any of the latter, but you would also have to recognize the risk and be comfortable with accepting it – as a trade-off, in exchange for the $$ you save.

When is the Best Time to Pressure Wash?

The Top 10 Pressure Washing mistakes- Exterior Home Painting

All paint manufacturers say about the same thing when it comes to surface prep, more or less – Clean, Dry, Dull. That means in addition to all your scraping, sanding and prepping and filling and caulking, you need to clean the surfaces, that’s usually pressure washing.

The question is: when is the best time to pressure wash, before prep begins or after prep is done?

Answer: it depends on the project. To illustrate, using my favorite orange house, which was built in about 2006, so there wasn’t any old peeling paint to scrape & sand away. In this case the prep amounted to removing old caulk seams that had buckled, re-caulking, followed by very thorough washing.

Another favorite house, which is about 100 years old, required lots of aggressive surface prep, sanding too – all of which created a lot of dust. So, in this case the best time to wash would be after the dust making was done because dust is an adhesion inhibitor and needs to be removed from the surface before painting.

But first, caulking has to be in place or water will get inside and cause problems. So this process is a little less convenient and that’s why most painters don’t do it.

Sometimes old paint begins to break down (especially cheap paint with a lot of clay in it) and become chalky. This chalkiness needs to be addressed either by washing and scrubbing with brushes, or priming with a clear binding primer, or both.

Other cleaning observations involving use of pressure washers; it’s easy to cause damage using one of these machines, it’s also common for companies to put the new guys on the washer. This is like giving the keys to an F-350 or a Porsche to a brand new driver – it’s too much power for the experience level and something is going to go wrong.

The top 10 most common pressure washing mistakes:

#1: not washing 100% of the surfaces. Just because it’s wet, doesn’t mean it got washed.

#2: getting too close to the surface, causing cuts and scars, and on decks blowing out the soft-grain of the wood, leaving washing-board surface – requiring wood replacement.

#3: staying too far away for the pressure to be effective – after damaging the last house by getting too close, he’s going to make sure he doesn’t damage this one by staying a couple feet away.

#4: getting water inside the house; either by blowing water up inside soffit vents – this gets insulation wet in an area that doesn’t dry, resulting in mold growth and water stains as the moisture evacuates the cavity. Or, not ensuring the windows are closed.

#5: washing from the bottom up – this is common sense but that doesn’t mean common to everyone. Washing from the top down ensures that the dust and dirt from the top gets washed off as you descend.

#6: washing from the ground – not using ladders but instead a “focus” tip, this is just lazy, sorry.

#7: using the wrong tip in the wand. There are a dozen or so common tips, and one of them is perfect for the application.

#8: Trying to use the pressure washer to wash windows…nuff said.

#9: Grass burn – leaving the machine in one spot on the lawn for too long, burning a little square into the grass.

#10: magic number 10 is injury to the operator. The most common is pressure cut in the skin, usually the back of the calf as the operator swings the wand behind him to wash the surface on the other side of the ladder.

These mistakes are much more common with sub-contractor brokerages (sub shops) than with employee companies. Contractors whose business model is sub-contractor brokerage don’t train their subs, period. Many employee-model companies don’t either, but tend to have more training than sub shops.

There’s great resources on proper washing, check it out.

The Big 3 Ingredients that make up a Painting Project

Speed, Quality, Price; Pick any 2 you like. In my cartoon bubble, you can’t have it all, you only get 2 of these 3; like Vegas – one of them goes to the house.

I want to contract a fence so I get 3 bids: the first salesman pitches his fence as fast & cheap, the second pitches his as fast & perfect, the third pitches his on perfect because he does it all himself. It’s reasonable for me to conclude that the #1 is going to be sloppy, #2 is going to be expensive, and #3 is going to take a long time.

To illustrate my point, an anecdote; I actually have contracted 3 fences in my life. Here’s the story:

The firstfencewas back in Minnesota, we needed a picket fence for our first house and I got 3 estimates.

The house was small, and sat in the middle of the lot and the neighborhood pets and kids had used the property as a public footpath for years because of its pivotal location. We needed a fence but it was going to be a lot (300+ feet) of fencing, and, expensive.

One of the bidswas comparatively cheap compared to the others, and the quality of their work that I looked at was good. The references I spoke to told me that the guy was a little disorganized and the job took a long time.

I chose this contractor anyway because the price and quality were in the sweet spot – the warning signs about the contractor being a lousy manager of clients, projects, schedules, and himself were all true, as I learned first hand.

The job eventually got done, but there were constant delays – they had a few jobs ongoing and it seemed like they were juggling them, or there was always some other excuse why they weren’t there working. Fine with me, it was my first house and I gladly suffered the inconvenience for the good quality and low price; but speed went to the house as the fence took a long time to complete.

The 2nd fence I bought was a different story; our first house in Colorado – a big wind storm had blown down an 8 foot stockade bordering our property, the fence was both a privacy barrier to a very busy strip mall & parking lot – it kept eyes out of our backyard, but it also kept our young kids and our dog contained.

I got 3 bids and chose the one who could start the next day and finish by day’s end. The fence was perfect, the speed was excellent, but the price went to the house – it cost a lot more. Life got back to normal within a day or two so the experience was a good one for me.

My 3rd fence experience was totally different than the first 2. It was a side fence at our shop with a large vehicle gate. I had my 3 estimates in hand, I chose the contractor who could get the job done quickly and at the best price.

I kept 1 eye closed on the quality aspects, because I decided it didn’t matter that much; cedar stockade with a functioning gate, sure it wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t care that much if the grade of lumber was less, or it wasn’t quite as straight, or if the workers were less experienced – it was a shop fence. Speed and price were fine, quality went to the house.

Of course there are times when this rule may not apply, outliers. A perfect example of an outlier would be the odd arrangement of circumstances where a contractor with a talented team and a reputation for great quality had a hole in the schedule that needed to be filled to keep the team working – a perfect storm of circumstances that gets you the best price, the best quality and immediate engagement – a rare convergence that benefits you (you get the best quality, service and price), and the contractor (he/she gets to fill a hole in the schedule), and the company’s staff (they get to earn wages).

Aside from that rare convergence, something is usually sacrificed.

Here’s the point: when contracting work on your home, first get your bids in hand, then ask yourself questions about the speed, quality, and price of the jobs represented by the various bids.Then, with the Prices in hand ask questions about how long the job will take and what level of quality you can expect to see when it’s done.

Pretend, in your cartoon bubble, that the bids you have all represent a finished project, which is behind a curtain – and you can’t peek.But if you could, you would find that each job had 2 of the big 3, but the 3rd is going to the house.